Every human being wants to belong. This need is so strong that people will do nearly anything to feel like they are part of something.
Personal relationships form a safety net around individuals to protect them from too much isolation. Long ago, people who strayed from a group had a much harder time surviving the elements or avoiding starvation. While it’s physically safer now to live a solitary life, emotional isolation can still threaten a person’s mental well-being.
Erika Krull, MS, LMHP is a licensed mental health counselor, freelance writer, mom of three young girls, wife of one cool guy, and former prisoner of depression. She experienced three and a half years of postpartum depression and PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) before getting treatment.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Social support is a vital and effective part of depression recovery. It can turn around damaging isolation, affect a person’s life focus, and generate solutions for depression management. Learn more about how this powerful social force can positively effect someone living with depression.
Social Connection Curbs Your Sense of Isolation
Depression is a selfish, abusive captor. It enjoys nothing more than seeing you all alone, feeling like nobody would miss you if you weren’t around. It magnifies your sense of shame, making sure you believe that no one could understand or care about your struggles. You can easily imagine rejection and ridicule for speaking up. Holding your tongue might keep you isolated, but at least you’d avoid petrifying embarrassment.
This can seem like the lesser of two evils and a reasonable tradeoff. But in the end, isolation breeds only more isolation. This creates a reclusive lifestyle that can cut you off from people who mean a lot to you. Your hopelessness and thoughts of despair will only get worse over time. Your isolation can put you at much greater risk for suicidal thoughts (1). So how does social support counteract this destructive spiral?
People are meant to be social beings, and we have better lives when we care about each other. Sharing your innermost feelings can seem like a huge risk. Human beings often do whatever they can to avoid complete rejection from others. But relationships aren’t just for the good times. People lift each other up when they go through tough situations. This often strengthens their personal ties as well. Why? Because it’s real life, and genuine real life has fear, uncertainty, and problems. The good times mean even more when you’ve been through some valleys together.
The isolation that comes with depression can cut you off from these important relationships. Getting help from a caring person isn’t about pity or being a “defective” human being. It’s just the way people are supposed to be with each other. You may need to choose your confidants carefully. If you have a few people in your life who are genuinely concerned for your well-being, then hold on to them. They are a priceless part of your life and depression recovery. However, if you have toxic, unreliable individuals in your life, be very careful. These people may use your personal vulnerability to their advantage, hurting you time and again. A pastor or mental health counselor may be a good place to start if this is your situation.
Social Support Keeps You Connected with Life
An isolated, depressed person can slowly die on the vine, believing the world is better off without him or her (or that that person is better off without the world). Thoughts of death coupled with intense negative emotion are two of the most dangerous aspects of depression. A person who keeps meaningful connections with others stays connected with life. He or she can visualize the future, making plans to keep on living and stay out of harm’s way.
When you are depressed, isolation turns you away from life. This creates a self-fulfilling cycle where you feel increasingly rejected and remain disconnected, increasing the chances that your connections might fade or weaken. This dangerous combination affects how you see your very existence. Instead of turning your vision toward growth and living, you become focused on avoiding the most pain. And unfortunately, death can easily become the leading candidate for pain relief.
Sometimes a support person has to forcibly break through strong walls of isolation to make a connection. This may be met with fierce resistance, especially if isolation has been prolonged or you are feeling suicidal. However, if you have some flicker of life inside (even if it is deeply covered) or you have a great deal of trust in your support person, you can turn your vision from death to life. When the pattern is changed to include regular social time with positive, trusted people, depression’s grip can be loosened. Life is put back on center stage, giving death less and less time in the spotlight.
Social Connection Helps You Find Solutions
If you have depression and you reach out to a trusted, non-depressed person for help, you highlight one of the more important aspects of social support. Helping people, if chosen wisely, will have a vision of health that you can’t muster yourself. A non-depressed person can create and capture a healthier vision of your life, something you truly need in order to get better. It’s so easy to lose perspective when you are inside depression, even forgetting what healthy periods of your life looked and felt like.
Until you can truly capture that vision for yourself, a supportive person can hold on to it for you. It’s hard to reach a goal when you can’t figure out what it looks like. This “borrowed” vision from a support person can keep it real and thriving, even broken down into smaller pieces when that’s all you can handle. As you improve, you can live out and see the vision more clearly. The support person acts much like a compass, helping to reorient you to a healthier path of life.
Depressed thinking often involves replaying many of the same problems, the same negative scripts, and predicting the same (or worse) outcomes from the past. It’s really hard to be innovative or logical about what you really need to do if you only consult yourself. Friends, counselors, trusted health professionals, loving family members, and other supporters can help you generate a variety of solutions.
If you are still quite doubtful or confused about your options, a support person can gently help you see which ones might be the most helpful. You may have clear ideas about what you need but not about how to get started. You may also have a good idea about what hasn’t worked, but not why. When you bounce these issues off someone else, you open yourself up to their encouragement and their fresh ideas. Sometimes, all it takes is some new perspective on your situation to expose more effective solutions.
Social Support: A Vital Part of Depression Recovery
Depression recovery can be a complex process, but you don’t have to do it alone. Social support goes way beyond your friends trying to cheer you up a little. It’s about making genuine connections and spending time with people who care about you. It’s about knowing that you matter to other people. Depression can create a pit of despair and hopelessness inside you. With your loved ones nearby, the pit won’t be nearly as frightening. Your safety net is ready to keep you from falling in.